svay leu district, Siem Reap province – The couple, newly wedded, was walking through the forest near their village when the tiger sprang on the woman, dragging her into the jungle. She had been pregnant with their first child. By the time her husband found her, nothing but her head remained.
Ouk Kim San had heard many stories from the jungle during his three years with the tiger program run by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Wildlife Protection Office. But this tale was the strangest.
And if it was true, the problem would have to be dealt with quickly. Cambodia’s tiger population is already in peril, and getting smaller with each tiger bagged by a poacher. A man-eating tiger, terrorizing villagers, could cripple a conservation program that tries to teach people tigers should be protected, not shot.
“How are you going to explain community-based tiger conservation if people are being killed in the forest?” says Hunter Weiler of Cat Action Treasury, which has teamed up with WPO to run the Cambodia Tiger Conservation Program. “If you don’t deal with it, the people themselves will. Sometimes to do conservation you have to selectively kill one animal to save others.”
So with a notebook and camera to document his investigation, Ouk Kim San headed earlier this month for the site of the tiger kill, deep in the forests of Siem Reap. Travel is easy as far as Kbal Spien, along the wide new road from Siem Reap town to Anlong Veng. But from there the trip is made by motorbike, down the trail sliced through the forest, through mudholes and pools of sand. The only trucks that come down this road are those of Halo Trust, which is demining throughout the area. In the wet season, the road is nearly impassable.
If tigers live here, it is fine habitat. There are few people and plenty of prey animals. And if a sambar or wild pig can’t be found, there is always the farmer’s cow that wanders off in the forest.
The people in Kantuot village, 50 km from Siem Reap town, had heard the story of the man eater, but said it came from many villages away. A woman killed by a tiger here wouldn’t be implausible, though. This year alone, eight young cattle in Kantuot village have been dragged down and eaten in the jungle. The cows were only partially eaten, so the villagers believe they were killed by leopards, which are smaller than tigers.
Ouk Kim San sat with villagers in Kantuot leafing through a book of Cambodia’s mammals. Flipping to color photographs of tigers and leopards the villagers said yes, they see them in the forest and they see their tracks.
It was through this method that the tiger conservation program learned much of what it knows about possible tiger populations in Cambodia. In 1998, people like Ouk Kim San went to districts in every province and asked to speak with the best hunters. They asked the hunters what animals they see in the forest, and specifically how many tigers they had seen, where they had seen them and how many they had killed.
More interviews were done in 1999. Last year they started hiring some of the hunters, making them promise to stop hunting and paying them about $70 a month to patrol their former hunting grounds, looking for poachers and teaching villagers about wildlife conservation.
If they hurry, they won’t be too late. Rough estimates of Cambodia’s tiger population in 1998 ranged between 400 and 600. But Sun Hean, Deputy Director of the WPO, estimates at least 200 tigers have been killed since then.
“The first thing we need to do is stabilize the population. That is a great achievement,” Sun Hean says. “We want to maintain the population and maybe in five or ten years it will come up a little bit, step by step.”
The tiger program has educated scores of villagers on conservation issues and stopped some people from hunting, but it hasn’t solved all the problems. In the Cardamom mountains of Koh Kong province, for example, there are now 10 hunters-turned-rangers patrolling the forests. But in February and March alone, three tigers were killed in there, apparently by bands of professional hunters from Pursat and Kompong Speu, Ouk Kim San said.
The Cardamom mountains are also home to the only tigers in Cambodia that seem to have a regular fancy for human flesh. In the late 1990s, as more people were moving into the area and going into the forest to hunt and cut trees, dozens of people were attacked and killed, villagers there have said.
Elsewhere in Cambodia, though, tiger attacks on people are rare. In India, there have been man-eaters that have eaten more than 200 people, but here man eaters are more the stuff of legends. Yet legends persist. Many people in Cambodia’s rural villages believe tigers embody the spirit of the forest. If people are killed by tigers, then surely they did something to offend the forest spirit.
“Some people believe the tiger is the wisest animal in the forest,” Ouk Kim San said, “because it can kill people.”
But whether a tiger dragged down and ate a pregnant woman may never be known. After a day of interviewing villagers, the trail of the man eater was running cold. Some people laughed and shook their heads incredulously when he asked about the killing.
“How could a tiger eat a human?” asked Mao Nil, a 37-year-old soldier.
“Now I have heard the rumor came from Preh Vihear,” Ouk Kims San said, “so I will send someone there to investigate. But I don’t think it’s true.”
Ouk Kim San’s skepticism was sparked by new information from the villagers of Kantuot.
The tiger story, which made it’s way from village to village, had been followed by the real story, they claim. The man supposedly had killed his young wife and cut out the fetus to make an amulet for protection from spiritual and physical harm. The man eater, they said, was a cover up.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)